A horse’s digestive system is made to process large quantities of grass, which is high in fiber and water. The basic diet for most horses should be grass and good quality hay, free of dust and mold. In most cases, plenty of fresh, clean, unfrozen water should be available at all times, even if the horse only drinks once or twice a day.
How Much Food is Enough?
Most of the time, horses should be able to graze or eat hay when they want to. An empty stomach lends itself to a higher risk of ulcers. How much to feed depends on various factors such as condition and activity level, but most horses should eat between 2% and 4% of their body weight in pounds of hay or other feeds. It is important to watch your horse and make sure he is maintaining an appropriate weight. Your veterinarian can help you decide how to feed to keep your horse fit and healthy.
A word on grains: Most horses, even fairly active ones, don’t need the extra calories found in grains, which are high in carbohydrates. Foals fed “high energy” diets can develop bone and joint problems. Some adult horses develop certain muscle disorders related to excess carbohydrates. It is also incorrect to feed a horse extra grain in the winter to keep him warm. Hay, in fact, produces more heat when digested.
Any changes to your horse’s diet should be made gradually to avoid colic (abdominal pain usually associated with intestinal disease) or laminitis (painful inflammation in the hoof associated with separation of the hoof bone from the hoof wall), either of which can be catastrophic. A horse or pony breaking into the grain bin or being allowed to gorge on green pasture for the first time since the fall is headed for disaster. If you travel with your horse, bring his food along. For some horses, you may also have to bring a supply of the water he is used to.
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